John Cossham, low carbon expert, explains how the climate crisis is impacting all creatures great and small.
It is clear that insects are a vital part of the Earth’s ecosystem, and that they are bearing the brunt of the extinction event we’re in, as evidenced by the 2017 German study which showed conclusively that flying insect biomass has declined by 6% a year, amounting to an approximate 80% reduction over 27 years in the 63 ‘nature protected’ areas sampled.
Extinction Rebellion is not just about climate and fossil carbon emissions, although that’s an easy metric to focus upon. We are using oil at the rate of about 100 million years worth of production every year, according to one estimate. The rise in CO2 concentrations, as depicted in my favourite animated graph here, is the reason behind my ultra-low carbon lifestyle, although I am equally alarmed about biodiversity loss, as I was a keen amateur naturalist as a youngster.
Insects were a passion of mine, and I kept several species as pets, initially for my carnivore toads and terrapins, but then, watching my insect colonies eat, shed their skin and breed, I became equally fond of these little animals. I also went through a period of collecting them from the wild, and fresh from the killing jar, I’d pin them and set their bodies into the positions favoured by the Victorian entomologists I was keen to emulate. At age 18 I had a profound and life-changing experience with psilocybin and made a conscious decision to stop keeping animals as pets, to stop eating and killing animals, and to live in a way which respected the planet and its life forms. There is a direct link between this epiphany and my current support and involvement with XR – I feel strongly that keeping this planet habitable for all organisms has to be our number-one aim, and we’re currently overseeing a mass slaughter which we have the wherewithal to stop.
Insects form a vital part of our supporting ecology, and their decreasing numbers are a serious cause for concern. In modern parlance they perform ‘ecosystem services’ – jobs or roles or activities which economists have tried to place a monetary value upon, looked at from a human viewpoint. We immediately think of bees and pollination, and we’ve shared memes telling us that X% of our human food needs bees to be produced, but insects have a far wider impact than that.
They are one of our primary decomposers, flies and beetles especially, and without them we’d be deep in dead plant material, and slowly rotting animal carcasses which fly larvae make ‘disappear’ in days. Insects are really important as food for other animals – birds and amphibians, fish and reptiles, many mammals too depend on insect prey, not just bats and anteaters but hedgehogs and rodents too. Some insects are ‘keystone’ species, and without them, a cascade of other extinctions follows.
Seeing insects as ‘useful’ to humans probably shouldn’t be the main way of valuing them. I’m enthralled by the amazing interactions between species which have evolved over countless millions of years. There are flowers which can only be pollinated by one species of insect, and the flower ‘fools’ the insect with shape, colours and scent to think it’s a mate. There are wasps which lay eggs in the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles, but the parasitic wasp larvae don’t immediately kill their host, but eat all its non-vital organs like some sort of living larder, finally emerging to pupate and become a new adult, hunting for an unfortunate caterpillar. There’s a group of fungi which after their spores get inhaled by a suitable insect, and when the fungal threads grow into the brain, cause the insect to walk up high onto branches so when the mushroom erupts from the animal’s head, the spores have more of a chance of spreading far and wide. These biological systems have intrinsic worth, completely separate to human observation or classification. It is a crime against something larger than international law that we are driving them into non-existence.
Insects were one of my first loves in the natural world and I continue to experience wonder and joy when observing them or learning about them. For some, Extinction Rebellion is about preserving the planet for humans – and I support that too, but insects are more numerous, more varied, just as fascinating, and if they go, we go too. We know what the causes of the extinction event are, and at least some solutions which could, and should, be enacted immediately to halt the ecocide. The question is, how should we, the masses who care about all of this, go about making it happen?
I think XR has it more or less right. Non-violent but irritating disruption which is impossible to stop happening as we’re decentralised, and if the ‘powers that be’ chop off one limb, another will grow (like some animals, funnily enough!) so ‘they’ will never win, and eventually ‘they’ will have to concede that we are right, that the planet is worth looking after, as the science and evidence is so obvious.
We’ll find ways of working out what to do, such as the Citizens’ Assembly method of democracy which will enable elected politicians to ‘not take the blame’ for the radical changes they’ll put in place to ‘save the planet’. If we take too long doing this, blocked roads and halted tube trains will seem like nothing to worry about, as ever increasingly extreme weather events cause crop failures and food shortages, heatwaves and floods destroy infrastructure, and society begins to break down and collapse – all these could happen anyway, as we’ve left it very late to turn things around, but if XR’s demands are met, we may have a chance of dodging some of the buckshot.
So, as it’s possible that humans will experience a population crash, or even die out, I expect and hope some insects will survive us – they’re not all super-specialised and I can imagine situations where some insect populations do well on a rewilded planet, devoid of ongoing human pollution. But obviously I would prefer if we could go forward as fellow voyagers on this little lump of rock hurtling through space, with future generations of humans being able to experience wonder and enjoyment from these amazing animals.